Our first Champions League group stage away game took place 20 years ago today, and as our feature looking back on that memorable European campaign continues, we revisit what turned out to be an unproductive trip to Berlin...
Hertha Berlin v Chelsea, Champions League group stage one, matchday two, Tuesday 21 September 1999
After our high-octane Champions League debut against AC Milan, Gianluca Vialli’s Blues came crashing back down to earth in Hertfordshire three days later. A meek 1-0 loss at newly promoted (and eventually relegated) Watford was a prime example of the consistent inconsistency that blighted our title challenges around this time.
The trip to Vicarage Road was the first of three away games in a week. The second took us to Berlin, the German capital, to take on a Hertha side who like us were appearing in their maiden Champions League campaign. It remains their only time at Europe’s top table.
Hertha, who finished third in the 1998/99 Bundesliga, showed their credentials on matchday one with a 2-2 draw against Galatasaray in Istanbul. Indeed, only a controversial late penalty denied them victory.
In Berlin six days later, over 51,000 fans enjoyed a beautiful sunset behind the Olympic Stadium, infamously known as the centrepiece for the Nazi-run Games of 1936. Inside three minutes, the home fans had a goal to celebrate.
Ali Daei, the Iranian striker whose world record of 109 international goals is under threat from Cristiano Ronaldo, got between Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf and powered a fine header inside Ed de Goey. It was, by Leboeuf’s own admission, a collective mistake.
‘Marcel was with the guy in the middle when the wide man dribbled past Albert [Ferrer],’ he explained afterwards.
‘Marcel left him thinking the wide man wanted to go in the box, but he crossed and suddenly I was with two guys. Graeme didn’t have time to speak to say what he was doing. I had to choose between the guy behind and the guy in front.
‘As it happens, Graeme could have got the guy behind and I could have gone forward to Daei. But even if I had, he was so tall and strong, I don’t know if I’d have stopped him.’
Gianfranco Zola, Chelsea’s brightest spark in the Milan opener, had two left-footed shots from range saved, while Celestine Babayaro burst into the box but shot wide with our best chance. Vialli’s side struggled for rhythm on an average surface and certainly missed the goal threat of Gus Poyet, missing with an abductor strain.
Things went from bad to worse on 70 minutes. Daei pounced on a Leboeuf miscontrol, raced away and finished expertly, sliding the ball past De Goey and in off the post.
With five minutes left, Leboeuf partially redeemed himself, thundering home a penalty after sub Chris Sutton had been tugged back. Despite the Blues laying siege to the Berlin goal late on an equaliser would not arrive. ‘It’s coming home, it’s coming home, foosball’s coming home’ crowed the home support. Vialli made no excuses afterwards.
‘The way we played the first half was abysmal,’ the Italian said. ‘I don’t know why. I must have done something wrong. Our mental attitude when we started the game wasn’t right. We conceded a silly goal and then the way we played for the rest of the first half was strange. We weren’t aggressive, we weren’t moving the ball quickly enough, we weren’t making unselfish runs. We were unrecognisable.
‘At least in the second half we showed some character, we were much angrier and created a few good chances.’
His opposite number Jurgen Rober felt his side had played ‘the outsiders’ role’ to perfection, stopping Chelsea from playing and taking their chances when they came.
It was a disappointing performance, and a potentially fatal result. There had been signs of character, though, as chairman Ken Bates detailed in his next programme column.
‘All of us make mistakes, but few of us make them in public and it is rare that mistakes are admitted or acknowledged. At the airport in Berlin, both Leboeuf and Desailly came straight up to me and accepted responsibility for the two Hertha goals and apologised. Such behaviour is a sign of a great man. We are fortunate that we have two of them.’
In the group’s other game, AC Milan squeezed past Galatasaray 2-1. The table after two of six matches was thus, with goals scored putting Hertha ahead of AC:
‘Seven days after a breaktaking performance against Milan that won worldwide acclaim, the Champions League obituaries are appearing. A week in football is a long time!’
From a magical evening against Milan to staring down the barrel in Berlin. All of a sudden, our first Champions League adventure looked like it might be over before it had ever really begun. But how premature those obituaries managing director Colin Hutchinson wrote about would prove to be…
Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Ferrer (Ambrosetti 63), Desailly, Leboeuf, Le Saux (Morris 70); Petrescu, Wise (c), Deschamps, Babayaro; Flo (Sutton 63), Zola.
Unused subs Hogh, Lambourde, Forssell, Cudicini.
Scorer Leboeuf 86 (pen)
- Go behind the scenes, hear the inside story and relive every moment from some of our other campaigns, from Moscow to Munich, by watching all The Champions League Years episodes on The 5th Stand app.
- Each episode of The Champions League Years tell you the story of one of the Blues’ Champions League campaigns, from our first appearance in 1999/2000 right through until that glorious night in Munich.
- Watch all the shows by downloading the 5th Stand app. Once you have downloaded the app, go to the Watch section and you will be able to find all the Champions League Years shows.